Panel to weigh zoning for Oakville senior complex

Stopping work not so simple, says spokeswoman for NCR

By Gloria Lloyd

The county Planning Commission is scheduled to consider making a recommendation on the zoning for the site of an apartment complex for seniors now being built at 6050 Telegraph Road when it meets next week.

The commission will meet at 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 5, in the County Council Chambers at the Admini-stration Building, 41 S. Central Ave., Clayton.

The County Council voted 5-1, with one abstention, in June to send the development’s zoning back to the county Planning Commission.

The resolution, introduced by 6th District County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, stated the council’s intention is to initiate “reverting, changing or amending the zoning” of the site back to its original R-2 single-family residential zoning from R-8 zoning, granted unanimously by the planning panel and County Council last year.

Meanwhile, despite significant opposition shown by members of the Oakville community at a series of public meetings, National Church Residences, or NCR, said the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, is urging it to continue building its senior apartment complex in Oakville.

“We have a signed agreement that we have to continue. We have been having discussions with HUD on this on a routine basis,” said Karen Twinem, spokeswoman for Ohio-based developer NCR. “And we have been encouraged to continue.”

St. Louis HUD Field Director James Heard said, however, that whether the company moves forward is its own decision.

“It’s my understanding that there is no stop order of any nature, so they can continue to move forward,” he said. “That is not our decision to make for them — we have a contractual obligation as far as the funding, and that’s what we do.”

During a July 15 public hearing conducted by the county Planning Commission, dozens of Oakville residents voiced their objections to the senior complex.

A nonbinding show of hands taken at the end of the meeting showed 250 people against the complex and 12 in support of the apartments. About 75 to 100 opponents remained outside the chambers, not allowed in due to fire codes.

“We don’t have any thoughts or comments on anything that the county is doing,” Heard said about the possibility of the site being rezoned. “That’s the county’s process … As far as the ($6.7 million in HUD) funding, we’re all in favor of that. Absolutely.”

The $5.1 million, 45-unit, 41,778-square-foot senior apartment complex is being built on a 1.44-acre lot, bordering the Monastery of St. Clare and the Goddard School, a preschool for children ages 6 months to 6 years. Although the construction of the building itself will cost $5.1 million, the $6.7 million grant NCR received from HUD also covers the $500,000 land purchase, the architect and other costs associated with construction.

Representatives of both the school and monastery spoke against the development at the July 15 public hearing, saying that they did not know the apartment complex was being built when it first came up for rezoning last year and that the three-story building will interfere with the privacy the children and nuns at each of their institutions now expect. The building will have units that look directly onto the Goddard School’s playground, which the students often use as a classroom outdoors.

“The fact that they continue to spend our money on something that might not be seen through to completion — I find that offensive,” Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-Oakville, told the Call. “When you’re spending taxpayer money, I believe you should take care how those dollars are spent.”

HUD does not want to modify its plans for something that might not change, however, Heard noted.

“We cannot speculate on the future,” he said.

If the County Council changes the site’s zoning, the developer could sue the county for damages, County Executive Charlie Dooley has said.

However, one of the speakers at the Planning Commission hearing speculated that the county will also be sued if it does not rezone the site, predicting that residents of Oakville and surrounding businesses will file a class-action lawsuit against the county.

“I would imagine that some type of class action would be much larger than anything NCR could put out,” resident Brett Gutman said. “I ask you to remember who pays your tax bills. Because you’re going to get sued either way.”

Twinem believes that opposition to the complex is driven by opposition to HUD itself and to the possibility of low-income residents living in Oakville.

“People are trying to change the zoning because low-income housing is being built,” Twinem said. “So frankly if the county makes a decision to change that zoning, there’s a real question: Is this a violation of a federal law, the Fair Housing Act?”

Asked if HUD might sue the county over a potential violation of the Fair Housing Act, Heard said, “We can’t answer that question at this time.”

Heard also declined to comment on any construction deadline required by HUD, telling the Call to file a Freedom of Information Act request for the construction contract. NCR said in May that construction would take a year. At the planning hearing, NCR attorney John King said that by August, the first floor of the building will be completed.

Several speakers at the Planning Commission hearing countered the idea that opposition to the apartment complex is driven by the income of the potential residents of the complex.

“I don’t care if this is a retirement home for billionaires,” Haefner’s son, attorney Mark Haefner, said at the hearing. “The property is too small of a space for the building.”

Although Oakville’s state legislators and Stenger have repeatedly urged the developer to pause construction while the development’s zoning is finalized, Twinem said stopping construction is not that simple.

“The fact of the matter is that we believe it is quite likely that this entire building will be built if you look at land-use law, so stopping construction — we would default on our funding,” she said. “This contractor has scheduled time and people to work on this project. It’s not as easy as everybody seems to think it is.”

While Dooley has called the notification process for the NCR building “flawless,” several speakers told the planning panel they would have preferred to have known about a Planning Commission public hearing conducted last year so they could have appeared then instead of now.

At a June 7 town-hall meeting attended by roughly 800 people at Oakville Senior High School, Stenger said he had heard from “two residents out of 36,000” who had received notice of the initial public hearing in 2012, a situation he described as “untenable.”